Every so often, I think about writing to you, my good friend in America. I’ve
visited you so many times. I’ve travelled from coast to coast. In the
early 80s, I spent particularly rich times in Boston, when I served as a shaliah
(emissary) from Israel. I learned to love and respect the American Jewish
community – and I also became a diehard Celtics fan. (Getting to watch two
championships in three years was more than anyone could reasonably hope for.)
And I was in Boston again in the 90s, when I had the honor of studying at
Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
I learned a lot during my time at
the Kennedy School. Professor Ronny Heifetz taught me the fundamentals of
social leadership and management; Gary Oren taught me about de Tocqueville and
civil society; and in Marshal Ganz’s classes I lapped up the lectures about the
fundamentals of American voluntarism and how it led to the social changes in the
1960s and 1970s.
I took all that back with me and put it to good use when
I became the executive director of the New Israel Fund in Israel. And
while I was at the New Israel Fund, for more than a decade, you and I continued
to meet – in New York, in Washington, in Seattle and sometimes in Boston. (Yes,
I especially loved going back to see the Celtics – without them, life just
doesn’t seem complete.)
Every so often, I get to thinking that I should write to
you, my friend and brother in America. I think about those same old questions
that I had to answer each time we finished eating our bagels and lox. You would
look at me, the worry creeping across your face, and ask me, “So Eliezer, tell
me, what’s going to happen over there, in Israel?” And I would try to explain. I
would make excuses. I would squirm. The first Lebanon war. The inflation.
The politics. The lack of Jewish pluralism. The way Arabs are treated.
The never-ending conflict with no peace in sight. And the assassination of a
prime minister. You always had an endless list of difficult questions and
painful facts that I didn’t always know how to explain or excuse.
matter how uncomfortable I felt, no matter how many answers I didn’t have for
you about the past, present and future of our country, I always came back to
Jerusalem, the only place I really feel at home. And, immediately, I would
become part of the problem again, and not just a commentator.
I still think about you every so often, my good American friend. I see what’s happening
in your country – after all, we have Internet, too, you know. But we haven’t met
or spoken together for nearly two years and now there’s so much to tell you
about my country.
There’s a new excitement in the air over here. There’s
a new full moon in our night-time sky and a new grass-roots movement. And they
are bringing out the very best of Israeli society. Full of hope, this movement
has suddenly sprung up just when we thought that we were stuck in a dead-end
from which we would never escape. We told each other that we were hopeless, and
we started to believe it ourselves.
And now, seemingly overnight, I find
myself going back to those theoretical texts that I studied while sitting on the
banks of the Charles River. I’m rereading the words of all those thinkers and
activists who taught me that a society can reinvent itself, change direction,
and find new horizons.
I know you’re going to remind me that I always
tend to exaggerate – that my love for Israel is exaggerated; that my disdain for
politicians and their deeds is overstated. That I make too much of the wondrous
Russian immigration to Israel. That my rage at discrimination against minorities
is out of proportion and that I make too much of the destructive status quo that
persists between us and the Palestinians.
But I’ll still take a risk and
describe to you very clearly what I see: In Israel, we are experiencing a sense
of history-in-the-making that we haven’t experienced since Egyptian President
Anwar al-Sadat came to Jerusalem in 1977 or the morning after Menachem Begin
came into power. The euphoria is everywhere and it’s all coming from the next
generation, our children, who have been silent for years. And suddenly they are
roaring, loud and clear.
In late July and in early August, they stood
outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, in the streets of Tel Aviv,
and in protests throughout the country. And we, their parents, listened in awe
as a group of young people – most of them under 40 – talked to the crowds of
over 300,000 supporters. In screams and in whispers, they told Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu: “The People Want Social Justice.”
They didn’t say
“we.” They didn’t say “I.” They said, “The people.” The Israeli people.
And they called for “social justice,” that vague but tangible idea that
once only activists in social change organizations used to
quote. And when they call for social justice, they mean it in the only
matters. They want kindergartens for their children, fair wages for
decent pay for social workers, affordable housing, dignity for the
Are these really our kids? Those same kids that we thought would
never be politically astute are now naturally talking about “the people.” And
they aren’t searching for any validation – not from history, not from sacred
texts, not from the pathos that we, their parents, bring them. They draw their
inspiration from their own lives.
These young women and men from Tel Aviv
and Jerusalem, Rehovot and Kiryat Shmona, Beersheba and Ashkelon are the Israeli
people. They want a decent public health system, they want to be protected from
the tycoons and robber barons who have taken over the Israeli economy and refuse
to allow them to develop their skills, fulfill their potential and meet their
own needs. Our children have found their own voice and they want to be on the
public agenda. They are calling for a revolution because that’s what they feel,
and their revolution is based on love, determination, talent, organizational
savvy and rhetorical skills.
And we look at them and ask ourselves, where
have these kids been up till now? And then we realize that these are our kids
and we can’t help but wipe away a tear of pride.
Our own children are
beginning to reinvent Israel. Everything we thought we knew, everything we were
so certain about has suddenly been thrown into doubt.
For so many years,
we, the older generation, have had to be the ones to explain
everything. It’s so wonderful to now sit back and say to anyone who asks
for our sage wisdom, I don’t have any explanations. Go ask them, the young
people. They are wonderful and beautiful and smart and wise. They are hope, and
Every so often, I realize that we should be talking, you,
my American-Jewish relatives, and me. Maybe, just maybe, dear teachers and
mentors in universities and in the Jewish community, someone turned the light
back on in Israel, and that light will shine in other places, too.
I’ll be here. Every so often, I’ll come to these pages so that we can talk
together. I hope you’ll be listening, and I hope you’ll talk to me.Eliezer
Yaari is a Jerusalemite, an author and a journalist--Eliezeryaari1@yahoo.com